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The teen desperate to attend her father’s execution — and the court that won’t allow it

The Independent logo The Independent 11/28/2022 Josh Marcus

In October, 19-year-old Corionsa “Khorry” Ramey took her newborn son to meet his grandfather, Kevin Johnson, in Missouri. “My father was able to hold his grandson, and we were able to get a photograph taken together,” she later wrote of the meeting in court documents. “It was a beautiful but bittersweet moment for me, because I realize that it might be the only time that my father would get to hold my son.”

Johnson is scheduled to be executed on Tuesday, November 29, after being sentenced to death for the 2005 murder of police sergeant William McEntee. A month after Johnson met his grandson, a federal court ruled that, under state law, Khorry won’t be allowed to witness her father’s execution because she is under 21.

“I have suffered so much loss in my life — first I lost my father to prison when I was two, and then I watched my mother’s ex-boyfriend murder her when I was only four years old,” Ramey wrote in another court filing. “It is excruciating to know that I am about to lose my father all over again.”

On any death row in America, you will find stories of unimaginable loss, injusticee, and trauma for those impacted on all sides. Capital punishment often finds people who have struggled through enormous violence in their own lives, and wrought that same violence on others. To understand what it means to witness the final chapter of a death sentence, one must start at the very beginning of the story.

Kevin Johnson grew up in dire circumstances, with a father who was incarcerated for most of his childhood and a mother who was addicted to crack. Johnson and his siblings were often left, sometimes for days at a time, to fend for themselves. Social services records indicate case workers once found Johnson and a brother living among cockroaches, which Johnson said he would chase for food. His brother, Joseph “Bam Bam” Long, was born with a congenital heart defect after being exposed to cocaine in utero. At 14, Johnson was living in and out of group homes, and he attempted suicide.

Khorry Ramey has maintained a close relationship with her father Kevin Johnson, even though he has been on Missouri death row since she was two years old (ACLU) © Provided by The Independent Khorry Ramey has maintained a close relationship with her father Kevin Johnson, even though he has been on Missouri death row since she was two years old (ACLU)

In 2005, Johnson, by then 19 years old, broke the terms of his parole for a past offense involving a domestic dispute with Khorry’s mother. He was warned that police were searching for him. Thinking officers might seize his car, Johnson sent Bam Bam a few houses over to deliver the keys to his grandmother, to make it look like she owned the vehicle.

In a tragic turn of events, as officers arrived at Johnson’s home in the suburbs of St Louis, Bam Bam went into cardiac arrest. Watching from nextdoor, Johnson says he saw officers fail to render speedy aid to his kid brother, and manhandle his worried mother, nearly knocking her off a porch. (The department said it began lifesaving measures for the child as soon as it was clear that Bam Bam was dying of heart failure, and denied getting physical with Johnson’s mother.)

The experience sent Johnson into a kind of blind rage, he later testified. He blamed himself and the police for his brother’s death. When he ran into Sgt McEntee — one of the policemen present during the encounter with Bam Bam and his mother — later that day, Johnson fired multiple times into the officer’s face at close range, killing him instantly.

“They didn’t try to help [Bam Bam] because they was looking for me,” Johnson told the jury during his 2007 trial. “I flipped out, and I pulled out my gun, and I started shooting… I was just in a trance.” McEntee left behind a wife, a daughter, two sons, and a niece with a heart problem and a feeding tube for whom he helped his sister care.

The case, in which a young Black man killed a white police officer, quickly became a sensation in Kirkwood, Missouri, a largely white suburb where a police officer hadn’t been killed in over 100 years. The local prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, had a reputation for securing death sentences. At age 12, the official’s own father, a St Louis police officer, had been killed in the line of duty by a Black man.

Khorry Ramey during high school graduation (ACLU) © Provided by The Independent Khorry Ramey during high school graduation (ACLU)

Johnson’s first trial ended in a mistrial in 2007. Jurors couldn’t reach an agreement on what the young man’s state of mind had been during the slaying: whether it was a premeditated killing or a spasm of sudden violence. A retrial later that year, where the jury pool changed from a racially diverse group to a majority of white panelists, found Johnson guilty and sought the death penalty.

Khorry managed to keep a relationship with her father while he was on death row. After her mother was killed in front of her by an ex-boyfriend, Johnson was the only parent she had left. The two stayed in touch with regular calls, emails, and visits, where they would play Scrabble and take Polaroid photos together.

By all accounts, Johnson was as involved a father as possible. He worked with state officials and secured an academic liaison to help keep an eye on Khorry’s grades as she pursued an interest in nursing. When Khorry graduated high school, she wore a T-shirt under her gown with photos of Johnson, her mother, and her maternal grandmother, along with the text: “I did it for y’all.”

Khorry, whose case has been taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that the state of Missouri is violating her constitutional rights by denying her the chance to be present at her father’s execution: specifically, her First Amendment right to associate with her father, and her Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law (in this case, equal treatment to those aged 21 and over who are able to witness the execution of family members.) Given that both 19-year-olds and 21-year-olds are legal adults, there is “no legitimate state purpose to bar Ms Ramey from witnessing her father’s execution, simply because she is an adult younger than 21 — because none exists,” the ACLU argued in one of its briefs.

Earlier this month, US District Judge Brian Wimes acknowledged the cruelty of the situation. Nevertheless, he held that the harm caused to Khorry by not being able to witness the execution didn’t amount to a constitutional violation. “The Court does not discount [Ms Ramey’s] allegations of emotional harm and does not dispute they are irreparable, both in a personal sense and a legal sense,” he wrote on Friday, though he ultimately concluded the state could continue to bar her from the execution chamber to protect “the sovereignty of its criminal law enforcement” policies.

The ACLU argues this is an “illogical and irrational” conclusion. “Compounding her pain and grief by barring her from being with her father will do nothing to provide closure or healing to anyone else,” Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and one of Ramey’s lawyers, said in a statement after the decision. “If 19 is not old enough to witness an execution, then the state should spare Mr Johnson’s life for what he did when he was 19.”

“I’m heartbroken that I won’t be able to be with my dad in his last moments,” Ramey added in the release. “My dad is the most important person in my life. He has been there for me my whole life, even though he’s been incarcerated. He is a good father, the only parent I have left.”

Critics say there are other problems with the case as well, pointing out that capital punishment disproportionately affects Black men — especially when the victim of the crime is white. As late as Monday afternoon, hearings were ongoing at the Missouri Supreme Court to stay the killing.

Late last year, Johnson’s legal team asked St Louis County’s newly created Conviction and Incident Review Unit to investigate allegations of racial bias hanging over the case. This year, special prosecutor Edward Keenan declared the 2007 death sentence was tainted by “improper racial factors” and called to vacate the sentence.

“These facts and others leave no serious doubt that Mr McCulloch’s office discriminated,” the Kansas city attorney wrote of his findings. “The judgment must be set aside so that a lawful trial and sentence may proceed.”

The special prosecutor pointed to how local officials had declined to seek the death penalty for Trenton Dorster, a white man accused of similar crimes as Johnson. The official also said he uncovered memos suggesting a deliberate attempt to strike Black jurors based solely on their race, which is illegal.

Indeed, during the trial itself, jurors reported race divided the hearing room, with one Black juror describing a pair of white jurors describing African-Americans as “you people” and cautioning everyone else that a sentence less than death would mean Johnson would “get out and hunt them down.” Another Black juror said she had a friend drive her to the trial because she felt so intimidated by the large police presence in the courtroom, and feared she’d be improperly pulled over or arrested for parking herself.

A study from University of North Carolina researchers found that McCulloch, the prosecutor who sent Johnson to death, was 3.5 times more likely to seek an execution in homicide cases involving a white victim, matching the large body of evidence that the death penalty is applied along racist lines. (McCulloch denied accusations of racism in a recent interview with the local Riverfront Times, saying, “There’s no question that you can’t do the job that I did for as long as I did it and not have some people think that you’re a terrible person.”)

Most of Johnson’s remaining appeals appear to have been unsuccessful.

Earlier this month, a county court rejected the special prosecutor’s findings without holding a hearing, even though state law requires one.

Then, on Monday, Missouri governor Mike Parson said he would not grant Johnson clemency.

"Mr Johnson has received every protection afforded by the Missouri and United States Constitutions, and Mr Johnson’s conviction and sentence remain for his horrendous and callous crime. The State of Missouri will carry out Mr Johnson’s sentence according to the Court’s order and deliver justice," Governor Mike Parson said on Monday in a statement. "The violent murder of any citizen, let alone a Missouri law enforcement officer, should be met only with the fullest punishment state law allows. Through Mr Johnson’s own heinous actions, he stole the life of Sergeant McEntee and left a family grieving, a wife widowed, and children fatherless.”

Barring any last-minute rulings, Khorry will soon be left fatherless as well.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

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